It was a copybook diplomatic visit. The Bangladeshis were eager to have Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Dhaka for their 50th independence anniversary celebrations. Modi, too, was keen to be there to paper over a few cracks in ties and to ensure relations stay on course. And since it was a goodwill trip, the lack of breakthrough agreements didn’t matter. However, there was one confidence-building measure before the trip: the opening of the Maitri Setu bridge shortening travel time from India’s North-East to Chittagong and Kolkata port. It’s an event that could pay huge dividends. It’s often forgotten how the ‘Bangladesh-locked’ North-East took an economic hit after Partition and the 1965 war.
There’s, of course, the delicate issue of Bangladesh’s share of the Teesta waters. It was obvious to the Bangladeshis there was no point in raising the Teesta waters while Bengal’s elections were underway. Also, economic changes of the last decade have reduced the Teesta waters’ importance for Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis have migrated to industrial and other city jobs and fewer are agriculture-dependent. The Bangladeshis weren’t terribly happy about Modi’s visit to the Matua community temple at Orakandi but understood electoral compulsions and didn’t let it mar the bonhomie. Last year, they were also riled by the CAA/NRC rumpus but that issue also appears behind us.
Nevertheless, challenges do lie ahead. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s always been staunchly pro-India and we’ve backed her to the hilt, to the exclusion of all others. This has led to a situation where the opposition, and many Bangladeshis, believe Hasina’s been able to cement her grip on power due to New Delhi’s backing and there’s a degree of anti-India resentment. We need to be pragmatic and remember that in international relations, one leader can’t stay in power forever. We must cultivate links across the political spectrum to ensure stable bilateral relations and regional security over the longer term. Also, maintaining our “360-degree” partnership with Bangladesh is key to advancing our ‘Act East’ vision.